When the lions attacked the baboons, it was an incredible and brutal sight. Then the onlooking photographers saw a baby monkey caught out in the open. It apparently hadn’t gone unnoticed by a lion, either, and she closed in on the helpless creature with a glint in her eye.
The aforementioned photographers are married couple Lisa Holzwarth and Evan Schiller, who have a blog called The LEO Chronicles. LEO is actually an acronym, made up of the couple’s initials, along with those of their beloved rescue cats: Ernest, Emma and Olivier.
The pair use their talents for photography and writing to highlight the threat of extinction that hangs over Africa’s big cats. And in November 2013 Schiller and Holzwarth were touring Botswana with the intention of doing just that. They got more than they bargained for, however.
The day before their safari adventure ended, the couple experienced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a particularly fruitful excursion, with the Schiller-Holzwarth team witnessing not only hyenas but also a leopard. And then it became even more exciting, when the leopard was disturbed by an approaching threat.
“There was a troop of 30-40 baboons heading in our general direction,” Holzwarth subsequently wrote on the blog. “The baboons settled on another ‘island’ of trees a safe distance from the leopard. Then the baboons started screaming. … They [were] sounding the predator alarm.”
In fact, an approaching pride of lions had their sights set on the tree-dwelling baboons. The big cats began clawing at the tree trunks, which had the monkeys spooked. So it wasn’t surprising when some of the baboons tried to escape – but one of them made a mistake.
And it would prove to be fatal, as the baboon was caught before reaching safety. But while the photographers were still taking in the monkey’s premature death, they saw something else that must have chilled their blood. There was a baby baboon holding on to the dead body.
Holzwarth described how the month-old monkey then crawled away from its mother’s body and headed for the trees. Despite the baby’s best efforts, though, its instincts were not fully developed. As a result, the lions quickly noticed the tiny monkey, easily cutting off its escape route.
“They were obviously intrigued, but did not go for the kill,” Holzwarth explained. “[It] would have taken less than a nanosecond if they had been so inclined.” Instead, one of the lionesses who had shown an interest in the baby began to toy with it.
“The baby was jumping up and down screaming, and hitting the lioness on her nose,” Holzwarth recalled. Meanwhile, the lioness took delight in knocking the baby from the tree whenever it tried to escape. Eventually, she tired of the game and picked the monkey up with her mouth.
“What happened next blew our minds,” Holzwarth continued. The lioness dropped the baby monkey on the floor and sat with it between her paws, beyond the reach of the other lions. “[Then] the baby – in another instinctual moment – held onto the lioness’ chest and [tried] to suckle.”
Across the internet, people tried to guess the lioness’ motives. Some said that it was evidence of a maternal instinct towards the baby baboon. “A mother’s protective instinct has been observed many times to cross the boundaries of different species,” read one comment on National Geographic/.
Others remain unconvinced, though, instead viewing the lioness’ behavior as a predatory act. One such post read, “That baby would have eventually been killed by the lioness. Cats will play with a mouse until the mouse is worn out.”
Regardless of which hypothesis is correct, Holzwarth could see that the baby baboon was suffering. She went on to describe how it was obvious that the encounter was taking a physical toll on the tiny creature. Indeed, Holzwarth found it draining just to see the events unfold.
“I was in agony watching the baby’s ordeal,” Holzwarth recalled. “And [I] kept on turning off the video option on my camera, because it was hard to record.” Next, the lioness picked up the young baboon with her mouth again, but then was suddenly distracted.
Nearby, the male members of the lioness’ pride had finished inspecting the dead baboon’s body. In fact, their interest had been piqued by something else entirely: the lioness herself. She was not at all receptive, but their advances did divert her attention away from the baby.
And since observing the baby’s plight, an adult male baboon – presumably its father – had been trying to rescue his child. As a result of the male lions’ amorous advances, daddy had his chance. He took it instantly, and ran in to save the baby.
Quick as a flash, daddy dropped from the tree, grabbed his baby and climbed away from the lions’ claws. Even during his desperate efforts to get his baby back, Holzwarth was impressed by the powerful monkey’s tenderness. His obvious love for the baby warmed her heart.
“I was touched by how gently the Father Baboon held this little baby,” Holzwarth wrote. “[It] was in tough shape after its ordeal. After watching these human-like emotions and actions, it’s pretty hard to doubt Mr. Darwin and his theories. And what happened to the baby?”
“I like to think that the little guy survived with the help of his troop,” she added. “He was alive and safe in his father’s arms when we left, and that’s how I like to remember it. … He remains an inspiration to me – and a reminder that life is fragile. All we can do is live in the moment.”